Illustration by Ben Thomson

The Rise and Fall of Nokia 3310, the Funnest Phone Ever

How a team of Finnish twentysomethings created an iconic, indestructible device.

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28 November 2017, 2:36am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

Maybe it’s crazy to get nostalgic for tech. After all, we’re constantly replacing our suddenly obsolete devices with superior versions that are faster and cooler-looking and easier to use. This is particularly true of mobile phones—in 2017, it’s difficult to function in the worlds of business or pleasure without owning one that came out of the factory within the past one or two years.

But even though my slightly cracked iPhone 6 is objectively better than any model I’ve owned before it, I do get a little misty eyed when it comes to the telecommunications trends of my early youth. The Motorola Razr comes to mind, as do any of those phones with the sliding QWERTY keyboards. The most special place in my heart, though, is reserved for Nokia’s 3310: at once the smartphone’s complete antithesis and most influential predecessor.

Released in September 2000, the 3310 swiftly achieved total world domination thanks to a melding of form and function that was nothing short of Jobsian. It was both nice to look at and fun to use, and offered a suite of quirky and useful new features its users had never even thought to ask for.

“It was my first baby,” says Lone Tram Middleton, former Nokia 3310 Product Manager and, effectively, the phone’s inventor. Middleton was in her early twenties when she was tasked with creating and launching the phone—plucked fresh from business school, it was actually her very first job out of university. Leading the phone’s product development team of 40 people over two years, she signed off on Snake II and ringtone composer, chose the colourways for the phone’s casing.

I’ve tracked her down on LinkedIn; she’s long since left Nokia but has nothing but fond memories of her time there. “It’s very close to my heart. I still remember when we had the launch, following the media write ups. It’s probably a bit similar to being an artist or a singer—when things are first released you watch, because it’s so personal,” she says.

The 3310 was forecast to sell 20 million units, but ended up selling 126 million. To put that into perspective, the first iPhone sold 35 million. Even now, a decade after smartphones took over the market, six of the ten best selling mobile phones of all time are still those early Nokia models—the 3310 and its family members, with their interchangeable covers, in-built emoticons, amazing battery life (one recharge per week!), and near-indestructibility. In Finland, where Nokia was founded, its phones were once owned by 90 percent of citizens. In 2000, the telecommunications company was responsible for four percent of the country’s entire GDP.

While the 3310 was actually slightly outsold by its immediate predecessor, the Nokia 3110 (the first Nokia phone with an internal antenna, beloved by yuppie business types of the late 1990s) its developers were far from disappointed. They believed, correctly, that their device had captured and revolutionised a brand new market.

“We had quite a specific target,” Middleton explains. “We wanted it to feel more youthful than what Nokia had done before.”

In this ambition, they were successful. The 3310 now possesses a nostalgic cultural value that similar devices do not. Some of its memey longevity is derived from that famous indestructibility, which places it at odds with today’s fragile glass devices. More crucially, the 3310 was the first phone designed explicitly for twenty-somethings and teenagers. It kickstarted a revolution of rapid-fire SMS exchange, custom wallpapers and covers, and janky monophonic versions of your favourite songs.

Everything about the 3310 was fun. Each Nokia in development was given a nickname, and the friendly-looking and compact 3310 was christened “Beetle”. Its iconic T9 keypad, which curved gently upwards to frame a small backlit display, was meant to subtly resemble a smiling face. Months of thought went into said keypad, Middleton says. It was explicitly designed for texting and painstakingly tuned to create the right amount of satisfying clickiness for its user as they thumbed out a message or arrowed through menu items. “It was the first time we had changeable covers front and back so you could really get the phone to look completely different, and we put a lot of focus on messaging because it was quite clear that was what young people wanted to do.”

It’s almost impossible now to imagine texting without being able to see your previous string of messages to the same recipient, but until the 3310 came along, threadless SMS was the norm. Nokia’s official press release announcing the 3310’s launch on September 1, 2000, spruiked a “unique chat function” as its biggest selling point. Nokia compared the feature to desktop instant messaging services like MSN and AIM that were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Not only did the 3310 invent texting as we know it, it also laid groundwork for the most fundamental millennial method of communication: the group chat.

Oddly, teens didn’t quite catch on back in 2000. While the phone’s other youth-centric features—the games, the ringtones, the wallpapers, the interchangeable covers—immediately proved a hit, nobody quite understood what “chat” was for.

“It just didn’t pick up,” recalls Henri Holm, the 3310’s marketing manager. Like Middleton, he was instrumental in the phone’s success—she developed it, and he sold it to the public. Holm remembers being blown away by the potential of chat, but rues that it was “way too advanced for its time.”

How did a bunch of twentysomethings come up with the idea for texting as we know it? Most of the 3310 development team were in their mid-twenties, and just starting out in their careers. But the atmosphere at Nokia was exhilarating, Holm says. The company allowed its young employees a large amount of freedom to innovate.

“You could take risks there,” says Holm. “We could put small interesting details into the product which may have not mattered to anyone else, but mattered a lot to us. But those features we were able to try out, like gaming and chat, became mainstream features later on.”

Middleton’s particular specialty was consumer insights—she’s still working in this field today—and she led meticulous studies to discover what young mobile phone users wanted, and what they might want in the future. This was another of Nokia’s strengths: an earnest commitment to predicting and riding trends.

“We commanded that knowledge as a mobile phone company,” says Holm. “We did the research. You couldn’t go and learn it from any other company—there was no one else who had that insight. You literally graduated from the school of Nokia, which was the school to graduate from, where later you could go into the other companies and claim your rightful position.”

The Nokia 3310, hopelessly outdated as it is now, has a lesson to teach anyone in Silicon Valley. No matter how technologically advanced your product, it should respond to the needs of the customer first. “When you work with technology it’s so easy to get carried away with its potential,” Middleton explains. “While forgetting to make it relevant.”

Nokia remained relevant for a good decade, during which its phones achieved total ubiquity. The company would build on the 3310’s success with similarly popular phones that eventually integrated colour screens and cameras, and put a larger emphasis on multimedia. There was the Nokia 3300, which supported Mp3 audio, and the Nokia N-Gage—essentially a phone merged with a handheld gaming device. When Nokia ruled the market, it had no true competitor. And when Nokia left, its phones were still the best version of what they purported to be: devices for calling and texting. It’s just that consumers were becoming aware of a new kind of device that could do more than that.

Somewhere along the line, Nokia’s sense of fearless innovation disappeared. To make the inevitable comparison, Apple eventually let go of the iPod’s clickwheel and, most recently, the iPhone’s home button navigation system. But even when Nokia began, at the last minute, to produce smartphones, it clung to the same 3310-style interface that had forged its initial success.

“Phones are not phones anymore,” says Holm wistfully. “They are life devices. Back then, if you wanted to talk to a person you’d have to dial their number. Now our phone numbers are just for ID.”

As its market share in the West waned toward the end of the 2000s, the 3310’s no-frills functionality still gave Nokia an edge in the developing world—where the phone’s low price point, endless battery life, and durability were assets. But by the time the company was sold to Microsoft in late 2013, its reign was over. Nokia—which has a surprisingly long history dating back to 1865, when it was founded as a pulp mill and rubber manufacturer—was a shadow of its former self. Even a nostalgic attempt to reboot the 3310 this year with a colour screen and camera proved unsuccessful.

You can’t blame them for trying, though. The 3310 was one of the first phones to feel addictive, but it was also one of the last to possess a benign innocence that feels far away now—it embodied the spirit of technology that existed to serve rather than enslave, that was designed to last for years rather than be regularly and expensively upgraded. Recall, for a moment, the rapture of holding a piece of cutting edge technology in your hand—but also being able to put it down again.

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